Frustrated by school closure fight, Elgin County parent wants a return to local school boards

After a bitter fight over a local school closure, a parent in Sparta, Ont., is asking Elgin County to look at pursuing a return to an era of local school board control.

'It's hard for me to see how the TVDSB could have done a poorer job in this community'

The public school in Sparta was slated for closure. In the end, it was kept open but only for French immersion students. (Submitted)

Frustrated after losing a bitter fight to keep her kids enrolled at a rural school outside of St. Thomas, a parent is making a bid to bring decision-making for education back to the local level and away from the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB). 

In a presentation to Elgin County council Tuesday, Heather Derks implored councillors to look at whether it's feasible to return to a local board of education model like the one that existed before the late 1990s, when local boards were amalgamated into so-called mega school boards. 

In 1997 Elgin, along with boards of education in London, Oxford and Middlesex, were rolled together into the TVDSB. The move also took taxation powers out of the hands of local boards of education. 

For the last few years Derks has fought a TVDSB plan to close Sparta Public School, where her two children attended. The school is less than a kilometre from Derks's home. She and other parents made their case but in the end, the board opted to keep the school open, but only for French immersion. In September her kids began attending a school 15 kilometres away in Port Stanley.

'It's maddening'

Derks felt parents made a strong case to the TVDSB, but were ignored. 

"It's maddening when you don't have a good outcome and the input that was solicited through the review was disregarded," she said. 

Derks says Sparta Public School is now only half-full. 

"It put our entire county pretty much through chaos," said Derks. "The only thing they accomplished is making the school less well utilized in Sparta while putting a whole bunch of kids into an over-capacity situation in an unrenovated school in Port Stanley.

"It's hard for me to see how the TVDSB could have done a poorer job in this community," she said. 

'Provincial control'

But the director of education for the Thames Board said those who endorsed the idea of looking into forming a new local school board don't understand the details. 

"I don't think there's a fulsome understanding by the county council or the parent about the issue in general and how school boards are formed in particular. It's completely legislated, it's under provincial control," said Laura Elliott. 

"I totally understand the frustration of the parents but there were two Elgin County trustees involved in the Sparta process and there was significant public consultation," she said. 

There are two newly-elected Elgin County trustees, who Derks said endorsed the idea of exploring a local school board. But Elliott said it's not that simple. 

"We have some orientation sessions coming up and it's a matter of educating our new trustees. I look forward to the opportunity to working with the new board. Everything is completely on hold right now because there's a provincial moratorium on all pupil accommodation reviews." 

An uphill battle

Derks's call for a return to local control is something Bill Tucker has heard before. Now an assistant professor of education at Western University, Tucker worked as a principal in Elgin County in the early 2000s. He's also the former education director for TVDSB.

And while he understands the frustration parents in rural areas face when schools are marked for closure, he says amalgamation has delivered a more equitable allocation of money across the region. 

"I understand their position, but the reality is Elgin County as a whole has benefited from the amalgamation," he said. "You have renovations and new schools. They have access to money they wouldn't have had 20 years ago." 

Tucker said parents in rural areas frustrated by school closures is a problem that persists "across the province" but he's doubtful de-amalgamation will happen anytime soon.

"That would open the floodgates to other requests from across the province," he said.

One problem with the current system is that school boards must follow provincial guidelines when building new schools or closing existing ones. Even if a municipality knows growth is coming to an area, the province wants to see "bums in the seats" before allocating money, Tucker said.

It can be a cumbersome system, one that creates disconnects between needs on the ground and money flowing from the province and school board. In many instances, local parents and students feel caught in between. 

As an example Tucker pointed to the Summerside subdivision in southeast London. The province recently announced $14 million for a new public school in the area, which has been adding single-family homes for years. 

"The numbers a few years ago wouldn't support a school being built even though we eventually knew that would be the case," said Tucker. 

"Those kinds of situations are frustrating for both school boards and municipal governments." 

Elliott said she's had no indication from the provincial government that the funding formula will change. 

Derks says she won't be dissuaded from her fight. 

"I sincerely hope that the province is taking a good, hard look at what happened in Sparta,  where a well-utilized single community rural school was closed," she said.

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Andrew Lupton

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Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.